Before I had a baby I found the whole idea of motherhood, and children, unfamiliar at best and unnerving at worst.
In fact, there were a few moments in my mid to late twenties that my husband and I considered a life without children. It was fleeting, but a heady proposition. What about all the holidays we could have? The money we would save? The sleep we would enjoy and the freedom! The city breaks, spa days, concerts and pub lock-ins we could enjoy with no rugrats in tow. It was a tempting but fanciful vision of our future. We had lived that life, gratefully. Once we decided we wanted children, that was it. The switch had flicked.
So here I am, four months into my maternity leave with a little boy who is the most beautiful boy to have ever lived. And the lioness mother in me won’t hear otherwise.
I used to judge my achievements by how many long haul flights I had clocked up in a year or how many top restaurants I had eaten at, being a writer at a drinks magazine. Now, it’s by how many times I’ve showered that week, how many of Austin’s poos haven’t leaked beyond his nappy and whether I’ve managed to squeeze a bottle of milk from my embattled boobs, buying myself a precious bubble bath.
Forget deadlines and wine tastings. My days now feature an alarming amount of ‘poo chat’, and every Tuesday I voluntarily sit cross-legged on the floor of a community hall, sing Twinkle Twinkle and talk to other bleary-eyed mothers about nappy brands and white noise, all while waving a toy at my baby’s bemused face.
It’s totally bonkers but brilliant.
Motherhood is wonderful, like unlocking a door to a secret club, but it can be isolating. We live far from family. Impromptu visits were off the table. So acquiring a ‘mum tribe’ and making friends was high on my ‘to do’ list. It’s one of the biggest challenges a new mum will face. Where do you meet these mums? Will they like me? How do I ingratiate myself into the appropriate WhatsApp groups? It’s what prompts many to sign on to an NCT class, also known as the most expensive WhatsApp group you will ever join. There are also apps like Mush – think Tinder for mums – which is great, once you get over the weirdness of asking another mum out on a ‘date’.
Finding mum pals takes some gumption. Most are eager to take anyone up on the offer of a midweek adult conversation. But there’s no escaping the odd limbo that is maternity leave. You can go weeks chatting to other mums about the inner workings of your child’s digestive system before realising neither of you have the foggiest about what the other ‘does for a living’. For a time your career achievements don’t matter. It’s a great leveller, but a weird space to inhabit. When people ask, what do (did?) you do? You reply ‘I am (was?) an X’, secretly afraid that your brain has irreversibly turned to mush and is now incapable of performing said job.
Eventually. conversation turns to nurseries, and then to work. I won’t be the first to feel torn between being a mum and my career. Beyond the separation anxiety, going back to work is complicated. Despite the advances made, too often employers expect you to work like you don’t have children, while society expects you to raise a child like you don’t work. Working undoubtedly fulfils a part of you that motherhood can’t. But without grandparents offering free childcare putting a child in nursery can be a zero sum game for your bank balance (and that’s before the late pick up fees). Is it worth it? Will I deprive my child of the social skills gained at nursery? Will I go insane at home with my tiny terror?
Last week I was walking with a fleet of buggies when a man, exasperated by our slow pace, sarcastically huffed ‘come on ladies, go a little slower. It’s not like you have jobs to go to’. It irked me more than it should have. It was rude, but the implication that anyone with a buggy didn’t work and that they must be leading a life of leisure was insulting. Would that man have made the same comment to an equally sluggish group without buggies? Also, we are sluggish because of a perpetual lack of sleep. Mums work bloody hard. Whether they choose to rejoin the workforce or not, it’s no one's business but their own. Both choices should be given equal respect.
I don’t know what life post-maternity leave will look like, but I do know what skills I will be adding to my CV: the patience of a saint, MacGyver-like resourcefulness, and the ability to do any task one-handed, thus doubling my productivity. Bring it on.